KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The question wasn’t intended to be such a stumper.
Fourteen-year-old John Miller simply was supposed to name a favorite book he read before the one that changed his life — the one that had “naked girl” right there in the opening paragraph.
It wasn’t like he never read books. But truthfully, he and many of his classmates at Platte City Middle School in Platte City, Mo., were caught in the same malaise that seems to infect so many boys across the nation.
Book reading was a chore.
A time waster.
Said 13-year-old Parker Ward: “Most books don’t fit me.”
So goes the back story. This was the conflict that imperiled the teens before the big turnaround that would inspire young-adult fiction writer Don Calame — the very author of the words “naked girl” — to come all the way from his home in British Columbia on Wednesday to visit a school in a small town he’d never heard of.
You’ve got your typical boys. Then bring in Kelly Miller, assuming the role of the relentless eighth-grade English teacher. She’s determined to buck the odds and get all her students — boys and girls — to meet a goal of reading 30 novels this school year.
Miller knew the same general facts that had troubled Calame:
Boys read less than girls. Surveys show they’re more likely to have a negative experience with books. And boys lag behind girls in reading skills.
A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found an essentially universal gap between boys and girls performing proficient or better on state reading tests. The average gap in percentage points was seven to eight and persisted from grade school through high school.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the Nation’s Report Card — showed the same gender gap growing from seven points in fourth grade to nine points in eighth grade and 12 points in high school.
The boys in Miller’s class can explain what the teacher and the author were up against.
A collection of them, talking about reading late last week as their school prepared for Calame’s visit, figured that before this year probably 15 to 20 percent of the boys were big readers. Most of the remaining 80 to 85 percent basically didn’t read any more than they had to.
It was “more normal not to read,” they agreed.
“It used to be I’d look at the first page,” 14-year-old Chris Barngrover said. “I’d look at the size of the print.” Small print meant more words, “and I’d throw it back.”
This state of affairs troubled Calame, a screenwriter originally from New York’s Long Island, who grew up loving to read.
His response? Write “Swim the Fly,” an honest tale of a teenage boy’s character-building summer, and begin it this way:
“Movies don’t count,” Cooper says. “The Internet doesn’t count. Magazines don’t count. A real, live naked girl. That’s the deal. That’s our goal for this summer.”
It’s an often hilarious novel. Although the obsession of seeing a naked girl drives much of the plot, that’s not really what the story is about. But that and some of the language, and the low-brow humor of boys, not to mention the undercurrent of sexuality that dominates teen lives, prompted Common Sense Media to warn parents by labeling the book as “iffy.”
“I sat down to write a book that would speak to the 15-year-old boy I was,” Calame said. “Be true. Be honest. Make the kids real. Make their thoughts real. … If it’s not what they hear, if it’s not how they talk, they’ll put it down. (They will think) it’s like the author is lying to us.
“You want to get books in the hands of kids. You want them to read the next page, then the next chapter. You want to keep them reading.”
Kelly Miller came across the book when she searched the Internet for “funny books for boys.” At the top of her list: “Swim the Fly.” Her copy arrived, “and six hours later,” she said, “I’d laughed so hard I knew I had success in my hands.”
She added several copies to the more than 2,000 books on shelves lining her classroom. She suggested that a few of her students give it a try, and they took it from there.
“It clicked in my brain,” said John Miller, no relation to the teacher.
“It was amazing,” said Parker.
Boys who usually took more than a month to read a book were reading this one in a matter of days. Most also read Calame’s second book, “Beat the Band.”
The culture around reading shifted dramatically, the boys said. By a show of hands, most were now past 20 books read for the year, and many had gone beyond 30.
The pained answers around what they had read before “Swim” turned to a flood when they were asked what they’ve read since.
“Twisted,” by Laurie Halse Anderson. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” by John Boyne. “I Am Number Four,” by Pittacus Lore. “Rot & Ruin,” by Jonathan Maberry. “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins. “King of the Screwups,” by K.L Going … and on and on.
Some of the books bear themes that might make some parents nervous — zombies, deadly reality shows, teen sex angst.
But now, the boys figure, there is no longer the imbalanced division between readers and nonreaders. There’s a huge middle class, they say, with some 70 percent of the boys calling themselves readers, right behind the 15 percent who say they’re heavy readers.